SNP welcomes UK Education Secretary’s support of free higher education

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By a Newsnet reporter

The SNP has welcomed support from the Tories’ Westminster education secretary for the Scottish Government’s commitment to keeping university education free and accessible.

Speaking to the Daily Mail, Michael Gove, the UK government’s education secretary with responsibility for public education in England, said:

“I completely understand why the Scottish Government has decided to maintain the no tuition fees policy – it’s at the heart of what Scots think about education. They recognise the vital importance of maintaining access.”

His comments were described as “a rare but welcome moment of clarity” by the SNP MSP Stewart Maxwell.

In 2010 the UK Coalition government controversially voted to increase the maximum tuition fees to £9000 annually in England, even though resisting an increase had been a key Liberal Democrat pledge prior to the election.  

Scottish Liberal Democrat MPs Danny Alexander, Michael Moore, Alistair Carmichael, Malcolm Bruce and Jo Swinson all voted with the Conservative led government to impose the increase upon English students, although education is a devolved issue.

Mr Gove’s remark about Scottish tuition fees comes just a few weeks after he was sent an open letter, signed by dozens of leading academics at English universities.  The letter detailed their concerns about the damage being done to English university education by the system of student tuition fees and the recent large rises in costs to students.  

The letter said: “As academic staff we wish to declare our continued opposition to a system which will increasingly exclude working class students and others from non-traditional backgrounds and promote higher education as a privilege.

“The irony is that while students are paying hugely inflated fees (albeit as ‘loans’), universities are making cuts in academic, professional and support jobs which will seriously affect the extent and quality of educational provision.

“We are concerned that education is being shaped by a narrow neoliberal business agenda and that critical education, particularly within the humanities, arts and social sciences, is being marginalised.”

The letter was signed by Diane Reay, professor of education at Cambridge, and professor Barbara Harriss-White, director of the school of interdisciplinary area studies at Oxford University, along with 60 other professors at English universities.

Recent figures show that the number of students at universities across the UK has fallen by 12%.  The decrease is blamed upon the reluctance of students from poorer or working class backgrounds to take on the huge amount of debt required to complete a degree.

Mr Maxwell, Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Education Committee, added:

“This is a surprising yet most welcome admission by the UK government that we are right to pursue our policy of no tuition fees.

“I am delighted that in a rare moment of clarity Mr Gove recognised both the principle of universality of opportunity in higher education and the merit behind our policy.

“I wouldn’t bet on it, but perhaps Mr Gove will be able to convince the Prime Minister of the merits of the policy we have in Scotland and adopt it for the rest of the UK.

“In Scotland we are committed to delivering first class higher education based on the ability to learn – not the ability to pay.

“Hopefully Johann Lamont will take a leaf out of Mr Gove’s book and reconsider her plans to introduce tuition fees – after all, she’s become quite adept at taking her ideas from the Tories recently.

“A successful economy is a well-educated economy. It is in all our interests to ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to access higher education, which is what makes the actions of successive UK Governments in narrowing access an absolute tragedy.”